The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose

The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose

by Ratnakar Sadasyula - Monday, November 30, 2015 08:15 PM IST
The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose

The work and the legacy of Jagdish Chandra Bose cannot be categorised in any one discipline. He was a scientist, polymath, author of non-fiction, institution builder and much more. A tribute on his birth anniversary. 

 “In  a  large  forest  the  trees  shed  their  dry  leaves  one  by  one  in  profusion  thus  making  the  soil underneath  fertile.  In  a  country  where  there  is  continuous  research  in  science,  knowledge  of  it  in fragmentary  bits  is  being  spread  constantly.  This  is  how  one’s  heart’s  soil  is  quickened,  becoming fertile  with  an  alive  feeling  in  science.  It  is  the  loss  of  it  that  has  left  our  mind  unscientific.  We  feel the  impoverishment  not  only  in  our  education,  but  also  in  the  field  of  our  occupation  where  we  are bowed  with  frustration.”
-­Rabindranath  Tagore

The  last  decades  of  the  19th  century  and  the  early  20th  century,  witnessed  a  national  awakening  in  India,  in  all spheres.  In  all  fields-­  literature,  arts,  political  thought,  philosophy,  India  witnessed  a  Renaissance  of  sorts,  when  a hundred  flowers  bloomed,  and  ideas  flourished.  This  Renaissance  would  lay  the  foundation  for  the  Nationalist movement,  that  ultimately  led  to  the  freedom  of  India.    This  movement  also  witnessed  the  flourishing  of  scientific thought  in  India.    Most  of  the  Indian  scientists,  had  to  fight  a  twin  battle,  against  discrimination,  as  well  having had  to  put  up  with  outdated  equipment.  And  yet  it  was  in  such  circumstances  they  emerged,  men  like  C.V.Raman, S.N.Bose,  Dr.  Yellapragada  Subbarow,    Prafulla  Chandra  Ray,  Srinivasa  Ramanuja,  Meghnad  Saha  to  name  a  few. And  in  this  pantheon  of  greats  was  one  man  who  was  a  league  unto  himself,    Acharya  Jagadish  Chandra  Bose,    one of  the  greatest  Indian  scientists  of  the  modern  era.

To  call  J.C.Bose  just    a  scientist,  would  however  be  akin  to  calling,  Leonardo  Da  Vinci  a  mere  painter,  this  man was  a  true  polymath,  whose  genius  transcended  boundaries.  What  do  you  say  of  a  man  who  was  a  physicist, biologist,  and  has  been  named  by  IEEE  as  one  of  the  fathers  of  radio  science.    A  man  who  was  not  just  a  scientist, who  discovered  that  plants  too  could  have  feelings,  but  also  wrote  science  fiction  in  Bengali.    He  was  also  an inventor,  who  apart  from  the  crescograph  invented  many  other  instruments  for  research  in  physics  and  made significant  contribution  to  the  field  of  chronobiology.

Mymensingh  now  in  Bangladesh,      is  located  on  the  Brahmaputra,  and  is  one  of  it’s  well  known  educational centers  now.    It  was  in  this  town,  that  Jagadish  Chandra  Bose  was  born  on  Nov  30,  1858,  his  father  Bhagawan Chandra  Bose    was  a  Brahmo  by  belief,  and  worked  as  the  Deputy  Magistrate  of  Faridpur  and  other  places.    By nature  a  man  with  a  heart  of  gold,  Bhagawan  Chandra  helped  out  villagers  from  his  own  money  during  the  1880 famine  in  Bengal.  Though  born  in  Mymensingh,  Jagadish  grew  up  primarily  in  Faridpur,  where  his  father  was stationed.  Contrary  to  the  then  established  practice  of  sending  people  to  a  convent  school,  his  father  sent  him  to  a vernacular  school.    Studying  with  people  lower  down  the  class  order  than  him,  and  making  friends  with  them,  got Jagadish  a  much  broader  perspective  on  life.    In  his  own  words:

In  the  vernacular  school,  to  which  I  was  sent,  the  son  of  the  Muslim  attendant  of  my  father  sat  on my  right  side,  and  the  son  of  a  fisherman  sat  on  my  left.  They  were  my  playmates.  I  listened spellbound  to  their  stories  of  birds,  animals  and  aquatic  creatures.

He  mingled  with  the  poorer  boys,    swam  rivers,  learnt  about  nature  from  them,  which  he  credited  a  lot  later  for  his thought  process  too.  Most  of  his  classmates  were  sons  of  farmers  and  fishermen,  and  from  them  he  learnt  about the  rather  tough  life  they  lived.  And  also  the  techniques  they  used  for  catching  fish  or  growing  crops.  He  had  an insatiable  curiosity  for  life  and  all  that  around  him.  What  is,  a  glow-­warm?  Is  it  fire  or  spark?  Why  does  the  wind blow?  Why  does  the  water  flow?    –  The  questions  just  kept  coming  in  one  by  one.  Growing  up  amidst  the  fields, lakes  and  rivers  of  rural  Bengal,  imbibed  in  him  a  love  for  nature  as  well  a  curiosity  about  it.

Bose  was  also  inspired  by  his  father,  who  undertook  many  scientific  projects,  and  was  also  a  nationalist  and humanist.  No  better  example  of  his  humanism,  than  the  fact  that  one  of  his  servants,  whom  he  appointed  to  look after  Bose,  was  a  dreaded  ex  dacoit  whom  he  personally  captured.    He  undertook  many  projects  that  would provide  employment  to  the  poorer  people  in  the  areas  he  worked.  As  Assistant  Commissioner  of  Burdwan,  he opened  workshops  in  carpentry,  a  foundry.    He  narrated  stories  from  the  Ramayan  and  Mahabharat  to  Bose,    who was  pretty  much  influenced  by  the  character  of  Karna.    Growing  up  in  the  company  of  boys  less  fortunate  than him,  made  him  more  tolerant,  and  never  differentiated  between  the  rich  and  poor.  In  his  own  words:

To  me  his  life  has  been  one  of  blessing,  and  daily  thanksgiving.  Nevertheless  everyone  had  said that  he  had  wrecked  his  life,  which  was  meant  for  greater  things.  Few  realize  that  out  of  the skeletons  of  myriad  lives  have  been  built  vast  continents.  And  it  is  on  the  wreck  of  a  life  like  his, and  of  many  such  lives,  that  will  be  built  the  the  greater  India  yet  to  be.  We  do  not  know  why  it should  be  so;;  but  we  do  know  that  the  Earth-­Mother  is  always  calling  for  sacrifice.

Bose  often  saw  himself  in  Karna,  the  outsider  who  came  from  nowhere  and  challenged  the  hierarchy,  overcoming his  own  disadvantage.  And  at  the  age  of  9,  he  was  in  a  somewhat  similar  situation,  when  he  was  admitted  to  the prestigious  St.Xaviers  School  in  Kolkata.  Coming  from  a  vernacular  background,    he  had  to  face  a  class  full  of English  speaking  guys,  who  often  teased  him  about  it,  and  provoked  him  too  at  times.  With  not  much  friends there  to  speak,  he  spent  his  time  in  solitude,  and  this  is  where  he  developed  his  skills  of  observation  and  scientific temperament.  Being  intelligent  he  was  a  favorite  of  his  teachers  and  passed  most  examinations  with  distinction.   One  of  the  biggest  influences  on  his  life  was  Father  Eugene  Lafont,  a  Belgian  Jesuit,    who  was  known  for  his  vast knowledge  in  science.  Being  mentored  and  tutored  by  Lafont,  helped  Bose  to  hone  his  intellectual  skills  even more,  and  also  develop  an  interest  in  Physics.

Having  graduated  in  BA(  Physical  Sciences)  from  Kolkata  University,  Bose  was  not  exactly  sure  of  his  future.

However  considering  the  financial  difficulties  his  father  was  facing  then,  Bose  decided  to  appear  for  the  Indian Civil  Services  exam.  His  father  though  was  against  it,  saying  that  as  a  Civil  Servant,  he  would  be  cut  off  from  the common  people,  and  he  wanted  him  to  study  something  that  could  be  of  use  to  them.  His  parents  decided  that  it would  be  better  for  him  to  study  Medicine  abroad  in  England,  and  his  mother  pawned  her  jewelry  to  raise  money for  it.  And  soon  he  sailed  for  England,  to  study  medicine.  However  Bose  could  not  cope  with  the  rigors  of  the course,  and    had  to  quit  because  of  ill  health.  In  1882,  he  enrolled  in  Cambridge  for  a  course  in  Natural  Sciences,   in  the  Christ  College  there.    The  fact  that  his  brother  in  law  Anandamohan  Bose  studied  there,  earlier  was  also  a factor.    Being  the  brilliant  student  that  he  was  he  soon  received  the  Natural  Science  Tripos  at  Cambridge,  and  was also  fortunate  to  have  the  guidance  of  such  scientists  like  Lord  Raleigh,  James  Dewar,  Francis  Balfour.  He  also married  the  well  known  feminist  and  social  worker  Abala  Bose.

The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose

Coming  back  to  India,  Bose  joined  Presidency  College,  Kolkata,  and  it  was  there  he  came  face  to  face  with  the discrimination  Indians  suffered.    The  Indian  teachers  there  were  paid  1/3rd  of  what  the  British  teachers  got. When  he  was  appointed  as  Physics  professor,    it  was  opposed  by  Britishers  like  Charles  Tawney,  the  principal  of Presidency.  Fortunately  there  were  others  like  the  then  viceroy  Lord  Ripon,  and  Professor  Fawcett,  economist  who knew  Bose  well,  who  backed  him.  Even  then  Bose  was  only  paid  1/2  of  what  Britishers  were  paid,  and  he  also  was not  given  the  proper  facilities  for  research,  and  he  had  to  improvise  his  own  equipment.  He  got  over  this  by creating  a  makeshift  laboratory  at  home,  and  would  pursue  his  research  after  college.    Most  of  his  salary  went  into his  laboratory,  and  equipment,  and  he  lived  rather  frugally.  His  research  was  conducted  in  a  small  24  square  feet room,  in  Presidency,  with  some  rather  rudimentary  equipment.

The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose

James  Maxwell  was  the  one  to  formulate  the  theory  of  electromagnetic  radiation,  however  he  could  not  verify  it experimentally.    German  physicist  Heinrich  Hertz,  conducted  a  series  of  experiments  between  1886  and  1888, that  showed  existence  of  electromagnetic  waves  in  free  space.    Bose  had  read  Oliver  Lodge’s  book  on  Hertz’s experiments    and  was  motivated  to  study  more  on  electric  waves.    Realizing  the  disadvantages  associated  with long  waves,  Bose  first  reduced  them  to  mm  level  around  5mm  wavelength.  In  Nov  1894,  Bose  for  the  first  time gave  a  demonstration  of  microwaves  at  the  Kolkata  Town  Hall,  where  by  he  ignited  gunpowder  and  rang  a  bell  at  a distance  of  using  the  microwaves.  Bose  also  developed  an  improved  “Coherer”  over  the  previous  ones  by  Eduard Branly  and  Oliver  Lodge,    and  used  that  to  demonstrate  various  aspects  of  radio  waves.    In  1895  he  published  his findings  in  “On  the  polarisation  of  Electric  Rays  by  Double  Reflecting  Crystals”  at  the  Asiatic  Society  of  Bengal,  his first  research  paper.    Within  a  year  in  1896,    one  of  his  other  papers  “On  the  Determination  of  the  Indices  of Refraction  of  Sulphur  for  the  Electric  Ray”  was  published  by  Royal  Society  of  London,  and    it  was  probably  the first  time,  papers  by  an  Indian  were  published  in  a  Western  scientific  periodical.    The  scientific  community  now sat  up  and  took  notice  of  him,  he  was  given  the  Doctor  of  Science  degree,  the  British  Govt  came  forward  to  help him  monetarily.  In  a  sense  Bose  shattered  the  myth  that  only  the  West  was  good  at  science,    while  Indians  were  fit only  for  religious  and  spiritual  studies.  Lord  Kelvin  congratulated  him    on  his  success,  the  renowned  papers  like Times,    Spectator  were  all  praise.  The  fact  that  Bose  managed  to  achieve  so  much  with  pretty  rudimentary equipment,  and  in  the  face  of  discrimination,  made  his  achievement,  that  much  more  remarkable.

Should  Professor  Bose  succeed  in  perfecting  and  patenting  his  ‘Coherer’,  we  may  in  time  see  the whole  system  of  coast  lighting  throughout  the  navigable  world  revolutionised  by  a  Bengali scientist  working  single  handed  in  our  Presidency  College  Laboratory.-­  The  Electrician,  Dec  1895.

One  thing  that  needs  to  be  understood,  is  that  Bose  was  primarily  seeking  to  study  the  nature  of    radio  microwave optics,  he  was  not  really  keen  on  the  radio.  He  had  met  Marconi  in  1896,    who  was  at  the  same  time  working  on the  wireless,  and  seeking  to  market  it  commercially.  Bose  was  not  interested  in  the  commercial  aspect,  and opened  his  research  work  for  all  to  use.    In  spite  of  that  his  contribution  to  the  field  of  radio  science  was  very significant,  where  he  would  rank  as  one  of  the  pioneers.    He  was  the  first  to  use  a  semiconductor  junction  to  detect radio  waves,  and  this  was  an  influence  on  Pearson  and  Brattain  in  1954,  when  they  were  doing  their  work  on semiconductors.  Sir  Nevil  Mott,  Noble  Laureate  remarked  that  “J.C.Bose  was  at  least  60  years  ahead  of  his  time, had  anticipated  the  existence  of  N  and  P  type  semiconductors  much  before  than  any  one”.

By  now  Bose  fame  had  spread  all  over  the  world,  he  was  giving  lectures  in  France,  Germany,    US,  Japan,  where  he explained  the  significance  of  his  discoveries.  Many  English  scientists  came  forward  now  to  improve  the  conditions under  which  he  was  working.  Lord  Kelvin  wrote  a  letter  to  the  then  Secretary  of  State,  George  Hamilton,  asking for  assistance  to  Bose  in  setting  up  a  proper  laboratory  with  all  the  equipment  needed  in  Kolkata.    Many  other scientists  too  like  Prof  Fitzerland,  Sir  William  Ramsay,  Sir  George  Gabriel  Stokes  too  pitched  in,  requesting  for  all the  assistance  that  had  to  be  given  to  him.    The  then  Viceroy  Lord  Elgin,  though  showing  interest  in  the  project, felt  it  was  not  a  priority,  and  the  lab  ultimately  was  opened  in  1914,  just  a  year  before  Bose  retired.

One  aspect  which  Bose  was  pretty  much  against,  was  patenting  his  inventions.  In  a  sense  he  never  saw  science  as  a means  of  monetary  benefit,  for  him  it  was  used  to  benefit  mankind.  He  could  easily  have  had  made  a  fortune  just by  patenting  his  inventions,  but  he  was  never  really  interested  in  it.  This  is  the  reason,  why  Marconi  gets  the  credit for  radio,  though  it  was  Bose  who  actually  first  demonstrated  it’s  practical  application.  He  openly  laid  out  the design  for  his  coherer  for  others  to  adopt,  and  refused    to  take  any  patent  for  it.    Even  when  he  was  offered  money for  his  inventions,  he  refused  to  take  it.  One  of  his  admirers,  Sara  Bull,  filed  a  patent  for  the  galena  receiver  by Bose.  But  he  showed  no  interest  and  it  lapsed.    His  philosophy  was  simple,  knowledge  was  not  any  one’s  personal property,  and  any  could  use  the  fruits  of  his  work.

In  the  meantime  Bose  conducted  his  research  at  the  Davy-­Faraday  Research  Institute  in  England,  where  he  would do  his  path  breaking  work  on  the  discovery  of  plant  stimuli.    His  work  on  plants  was  actually  motivated  by  his observations  of  the  behavior  of  his  electric  wave  receiver,  which  showed  signs  of  “fatigue”  after  prolonged  use,  but could  be  revived  back  to  it’s  original  sensitivity  after  a  period  of  rest.    Bose  began  to  believe  that  even  metals  too had  feelings,  and  soon  turned  his  attention  to  plants.    If  animals  and  human  could  respond  to  outside  stimuli, could  not  plants  also  do  the  same,  he  wondered.    And  that  led  to  his  landmark  research  on  plant  behavior  and stimuli,  where  he  first  conducted  his  experiment  with  a  leaf,  a  carrot  and  a  turnip  he  bought  from  his  garden.    He began  to  work  more  extensively  on  this  and  in  1900  he  bought  out  his  paper  “On  the  Similarity  Responses  of Inorganic  and  Living  Matter”    at  the  Paris  International  Conference,  where  he  compared  the  responses  of  living tissues  with  inorganic  matter.    In  a  sense  Bose  was  giving  a    more  scientific  touch  to  the  age  old  Eastern philosophy  of    the  basic  unity  of  all  living  beings.  Swami  Vivekananda  who  was  in  Paris,  then,  went  to  hear  Bose  at the  Congress,  and  praised  him  highly  for  his  work.  Rabindranath  Tagore  appreciated  Bose  work  in  the  form  of  a poem.

His  major  contribution  to  the  field  of  biophysics,  was  his  demonstration  of  the  electrical  nature  of  stimuli  in plants,  to  say  wounds  or  chemical  agents,  which  till  then  was  assumed  to  be  chemical  in  nature.    He  was  one  of  the first  to  study  action  of  microwaves  in  plant  tissues,    changes  in  the  cell  membrane.  He  also  did  pioneering research  work  in  the  seasonal  effect  mechanism  on  plants,  effect  of  temperature  and  comparative  study  of  fatigue response  in  metals  as  well  as  plants.    He  documented  a  characteristic  electrical  response  curve  of  plants  to  stimuli as  well  as  a  near  absence  of  response  in  plants  treated  with  poison  or  anesthetic.

In  1902,  Bose  came  back  to  Kolkata  where  he  continued  his  work  on  the  physiological  properties  of  plant  tissues and  showcased  his  investigation  in  the  form  of  monographs.  One  of  his  most  significant  inventions  was  the Crescograph,  an  instrument  that  could  measure  the  growth  of  a  plant,    as  small  as  1/100,000  inch  per  second.    His pioneering  work  on  plant  stimuli  would  be  the  basis  for  many  fields  like  physiology,  chronobiology  and cybernetics.

In  1915,  Bose  retired  as  Professor  of  Physics,    he  had  actually  got  a  2  year  extension  in  recognition  of  his  services.   Even  after  retirement,  the  Govt  made  him  as  Professor  Emeritus  on  full  pay,  instead  of  giving  him  pension  as  per the  standard  practice.  Bose  did  not  give  up  on  his  research  work  even  after  retirement  and  kept  working  on  it  till the  end  of  his  life.  Having  experienced  the  struggle  of  doing  research  without  proper  equipment,  Bose  came  up with  the  idea  of  a  full  fledged  research  institute,  and  laboratory  for  aspiring  scientists.  He  began  to  collect  funds for  this  very  purpose,  and  finally  on  Nov  23,  1917,  his  dream  came  true,  when  the  Bose  Research  Institute  was opened  in  Kolkata.    He  was  greatly  helped  in  his  endeavor  by  Rabindranath  Tagore,  who  contribute  financially, and  also  backed  him  in  his  efforts.    In  the  inaugural  speech  he  spelt  out  his  vision  clearly:

I  dedicate  to-­day  this  Institute  –  not  merely  a  Laboratory  but  a  Temple…The  advance  of  science  is the  principal  object  of  this  Institute  and  also  diffusion  of  knowledge.  We  are  here  in  the  largest  of all  the  many  chambers  of  this  House  of  Knowledge  –  its  Lecture  Room.  In  adding  this  feature,  and on  a  scale  hitherto  unusual  in  a  Research  Institute,  I  have  sought  permanently  to  associate  the advancement  of  knowledge  with  the  widest  possible  civic  and  public  diffusion  of  it;;  and  this without  any  academic  limitations,  henceforth  to  all  races  and  languages,  to  both  men  and  women alike,  and  for  all  time  coming.

For  Bose  the  institute  would  be  a  center  for  advancing  original  thought,  where  people  would  research  and discover,  and  then  share  their  knowledge  for  the  betterment  of  mankind.    He  made  an  appeal  to  the  ancient temples  of  learning,  at  Taxila  and  Nalanda  that  in  their  heydays  attracted  scholars  from  all  over  the  world.  It  was significant  that  the  thunderbolt  fashioned  out  of  Rishi  Dadichi’s  bones  would  be  it’s  symbol.  In  a  sense  Bose  was  a modern  day  Dadichi,  who  gave  away  everything,  without  expecting  anything  in  return.

Jagdish  Chandra  Bose  was  however  more  than  a  mere  scientist,  he  was  also  a  writer,  an  author,  a  polymath,  a connoisseur  of  fine  arts.  He  was  a  writer  of  science  fiction  too,  and  has  often  been  called  the  father  of  Bengali Science  Fiction.    He  wrote  Niruddesher  Kahani  in  1896,  a  very  famous  short  story  and  his  Palatak  Toophan  was one  of  the  first  works  in  Bengali  science  fiction.    A  close  friend  to  Rabindranath  Tagore,  he  would  spend  many evenings  with  him,  listening  to  his  stories  and  plays,  the  latter  on  the  other  hand,  was  one  of  his  greatest  admirers, supported  him  in  many  ways.    In  the  history  of  science,  Bose  has  been  credited  with  invention  of  wireless detection  device  as  well  as  a  pioneer  in  the  field  of  biophysics.    His  work  on  the  millimetre  band  radio  has  been recognized  by  IEEE  as  a  milestone  in  the  field  of  Electrical  Engineering,  the  first  time  an  Indian  has  got  that honor.  Today  Acharya  Jagadish  Chandra  Bose  is  no  longer  around  us,  physically,  but  his  legacy  shall  endure forever.

This piece was first published on the blog ‘History Under Your Feet‘ and has been republished here with permission.

References on next page


Ratnakar Sadasyula is an IT professional who writes code for a living, and writes when free to keep his sanity intact. Also a blogger, and now starting out as a self published author of sorts, with varied interests in history, science, Indian culture. Believes that knowledge is meant to be shared, and a learner for life.
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